Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne – An Improvement in Gameplay, Characters and Lore of the “Warcraft” Universe

     “Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne” is a game that still holds up to this day. I came back to play it after beating it back in High School and found the challenge level one that grew me as a player. I also found myself drawn into the nuance in the story that the initial game lacked. When I think Blizzard for me at it’s greatest it is this. This was around the time I beat the first “Diablo” and got all the way to Baal in “Diablo 2” before returning the borrowed game to my friend. This was a game I had bought with my money. It was worth all the replay value and my eventual enjoyment of “Heroes of the Storm,” which I believe rose out of the hero dependent missions and maps you play in the “Bonus Campaign,” “The Founding of Durotar.” This game was a return to what I love about Blizzard gameplay and story at it’s best.

The game was released in July 1st 2003 by Blizzard and was written by Chris Metzen and directed by Frank Pearce Jr.

The story picks up at the end of “Wacraft III: Reign of Chaos” with Illidan Stormrage summoning the Naga to unknown purposes as his Warden Maiev Shadowsong hunts him to discover his purposes and imprison him once more.

SPOILERS in the story ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematics – The cinematics in this game are so beautiful. The fact that we see compelling characters like Illidan and Arthas being the soul focus versus one none evils like Archimonde or Mannoroth shows how this was an upgrade. In both cases are characters are making a choice and in playing the game or in living the game up to the point we have, we see the implication of that choice. The level of detail draws you in and when you see certain reveals whether it is the Naga or Arthas being one with the Lich King when he puts on the helm is powerful. These are cinematics that mean something and are presented beautifully.

The Gameplay – The gameplay is more challenging than “A Reign of Chaos” as each unit was granted something that they lacked. The Scourge lacked tanks and they got the Crypt Lord, the Horde lacked healing and they got the Shadow Hunter. “The Frozen Throne” balanced “Reign of Chaos” in so many ways that it can only be accounted for if you are challenging where you are currently. I’m curious if “Warcraft Reforged” will take this challenge further. I hope it will. The challenge of the campaign improved me as a player and made the victories all the more sweet.

The World – “Warcraft” has a rich universe and this one introduces “The Forsaken,” “The Naga,” “The Blood Elves,” and “The Illdari.” All these factions get explored further in “World of Warcraft” but the seed is planted here and given justice. “Reign of Chaos” enriched the universe but didn’t break any tropes. With Sylvanas, Kael, Vashj and Illidan this game did, which is what I’d argue where Blizzard really thrives in storytelling. Each of the characters I mentioned is a different shade of grey, driven by more than simply power.

The Characters – I was in this game for the characters and it was the reason I beat the campaign. Even though I’d beaten the game back in High School, I wanted to see where the story would go. Coming back years later I wasn’t disappointed. Each new growth of character is earned in gameplay and you feel the pressure the character feels. This is a game I will play again in full, whereas “Reign of Chaos” I will play some missions again but not the full game. That is all due to characters which “The Frozen Throne” does better in gameplay and writing.

DOTA and Custom Games – It was out of “The Frozen Throne” that we got one of my favorite games “Heroes of the Storm” that I am still playing. As well as all the pre-cursors like “Defense of the Ancients” which started the whole tower defense gameplay which eventually became it’s own game and also “League of Legends.” This game has had a larger effect on games than many realize. This was the precursor to hero gameplay with  running units (that was the finale of the “Found of Durotar” campaign). For that I will be grateful for as it gave me casual fun gameplay with “Heroes of the Storm” that I play to this day.

Rating the Campaigns – I’m rating each campaign on their own merits. This is a campaign that starts out good and becomes great. Unlike “Brood War” there is so much growth you are a part of and play a part in making possible (Illidan, Kael, Sylvanas, Arthas) that it can’t be ignored. The reason you win is because of your RTS strategy and how well you play your heroes. That for me makes a great game.

Sentinels Campaign: Terror of the Tides – The Night Elf Campaign is the weakest of the 4 campaigns though I’d say it is still challenging and reveals new lore. The new lore is the revelation of the Naga who are allied with Illidan after being turned into Serpent form after their fount of power was destroyed. From Maiev Shadowsong’s perspective (Illidan’s Warden) we see how driven she is to write the wrongs of his escape. She is obsessed and takes a Javier from “Les Miserables” role. Later when she sends for help after witnessing Illidan take the “Eye of Sargeras” and losing a close friend it becomes more fully about the Night Elves. The destruction he does on Night Elf towns with the Satyr (Cursed Demon Night Elves and Naga) we see the reason why. From here we see Tyrande and Malfurion coming to aide, which after rescuing her leads to them allying with the Blood Elves (High Elves have embraced Demonic Energy to feed after the death of the Sunwell). Here we see that Maiev is obsessed as after Illidan’s use of “The Eye” is stopped and her lie of saying Tyrande was torn to shreds was not true. The final mission is Malfurion and Illidan teamed up to save Tyrande, in which after Illidan leaves and promises not to return. We get some level of peace between the brothers though as Maiev’s forces chase after Illidan into the portal he created. Maiev was the weakest part of the story but it is still solidly good. Sets up the rest of the campaign beautifully.

Final Score: 8 / 10

Alliance Campaign: Curse of the The Blood Elves – This is the campaign where for all intents and purposes the High Elves leave the Alliance. This is a huge deal and we see that it happens is due to a racist general who only sees the other races as pawns. He sentences Kael and the Blood Elves to death for surviving due to Naga aid against the Scourge. Because of this you get why Kael joins Illidan after Vashj saves him from execution. This campaign also had my favorite missions. Once Kael meets up with Illidan, he Vashj and Illidan close the portals in Outland and recruit the Draenei Akame to their cause against the Pit Lord Magtheridon who controls the planet with his orcs and demons. After that is the final mission where you conquer Outland, Kil’jaeden holds Illidan to his contract and all of you are sent to Northrend to the destroy the Lich King. It was this contract that Illidan to seek the “Eye of Sargeras” in the first place. This campaign is so much fun. I wish the Naga had been a playable faction as I used them far more than the Blood Elves when I could.

Final Score: 9 / 10

Scourge Campaign: Legacy of the Damned – The Undead Campaign is fun. It is here we see the rise of the Forsaken who will be a crucial faction in “World of Warcraft” as well as Arthas’s arc being completed as he goes from the exiled King running from Demons (both external in the Dreadlords who own Lordaeron and internal in those he killed to get here) leading to him becoming one with Ner’Zhul as the Lich King. It is super rewarding to get there and Arthas shows why he is such a great foe. The last 3 missions are the hardest in the game and they force you to truly strategize. Seeing the rise of “The Forsaken” and Sylvanas control Varimathras the Dread Lord was much needed. Her tragic story from “Reign of Chaos” needed payback and “The Frozen Throne” does this really well. By the end of her story she owns Lordaeron with her undead. This was the most challenging and rewarding of the campaigns. The final mission against Illidan was the best where I realized I couldn’t wait him out and destroy his base and had to finish taking the points was what I love about gaming.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Bonus Campaign: The Founding of Durotar – The “Bonus Campaign” gives you a great pulse on where the Horde and Alliance relationship is currently. We see it all through the eyes of Rexxar a half-orc Mok’Nothal who helps Thrall’s Horde settle in Durotar. From here you face quests from clearing out Harpies and Kobolds to recruiting a Panderan Brewmaster and getting Rokhan a Jungle Troll who also joins your team. The story is told in 3 Acts. Act 1 involves you helping Gazlowe with the Kobolds, Drek’Thar with the Thunder Lizards while also clearing out Warlocks. Act 2 involved you getting over to Jaina when her father Admiral Proudmoore attacks and you recruiting Ogres, the Tauren once more and saving the Jungle Trolls so that all of you can stop the Admiral. Those 2 missions are fantastic and the “Diablo” feel from playing as heroes was a lot of fun. I can see how “Heroes of the Storm” and “Defense of the Ancients” arose from this campaign and the Tower Defense of the final mission.

Final Score: 9 / 10

“The Frozen Throne” is an expansion that improves everything from the first game. My only real issue with is is that the Naga weren’t a playable faction beyond campaign, but that is still better than the “Halo Wars” Franchise that took an expansion to make anyone outside of the UNSC playable and “The Flood” still aren’t a faction. This game didn’t have those problems. They started with 4 factions and made each of them better, while still giving us playable Naga in the campaign. This game made “World of Warcraft” and “Heroes of the Storm” happen and as much as I dislike some story choices in “World of Warcraft” it at least was willing to explore the lore that this game and “Reign of Chaos” made possible. After “Warcraft III: Reforged” which is this game and “Reign of Chaos” combined, I can’t wait to see what was changed and comparing the stories.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10 One of the best RTS games I’ve played.

 

Mother Russia Bleeds: A Wonderfully Dark Beat ‘Em Up

      “Mother Russia Bleeds” might be my favorite Beat ‘Em Up of all time. This is a game full of rich lore, fun gameplay and really brutal and beautiful design. What helped was playing it with my wife and one of my closest friends. Just the experience of us working together to figure out the pattern of the boss fights as we advanced through Russia really was such an amazingly fun experience. Before I get into details about the game itself and spoilers, I definitely recommend checking it out if you are a fan of Beat ‘Em Up style games.

“Mother Russia Bleeds” is an indie game created by the France based studio Le Cartel Studio and was published by Devolver Digital. Frédéric Coispeau designed the game with Alexandre Muttoni being the artist and director. The game itself was released in 2016.

The premise of the game is that you are four Roma who are used in street fights to make money in the slums. After your friend betrays you to the government you find yourself experimented on. After escaping the lab, you seek revenge against all those who wronged you.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Graphics – This is a beautiful 8-bit game. The game is dark and gritty while at the same time giving color where it is appropriate. Whenever you are fighting mafia or are in club, the colors stand out. The game becomes progressively more colorful until you get to the end where red and black are the main contrasts. This is a beautifully brutal game and I love the artistic choices the artists made when designing bosses (military generals, butchers, mad scientists) as you advance through the game as you unravel the conspiracy.

Difficulty – This was a difficult game. I’m glad that I didn’t play this alone. There are a few boss battles and fight sequences where having more than one person helps you figure out and learn the patterns. The greatest example of this is the helicopter attacking through a window as you fight oncoming goons. It is stressful and that was one point where the three of us took a break. Same went for the final boss too. He had 3 phases and each phase was harder than the last. This is a game where the build up in difficulty is progressive and challenging. Suffice to say, I enjoyed it. A game should make you better at it, and that can only come through challenge.

The Gameplay – Beat ‘Em Ups are a fun style of game. In this case it is also a side scroller too, so you can’t go back to where you were before. This provides a good challenge as when you knock enemies off screen you can’t attack them again until they’ve returned to the window of the fight. I really enjoyed the gameplay. You have Nekro which lets you heal up but also powers you up for a super move as well. There are also isn’t healing everywhere and you can only get Nekro from certain enemies you’ve killed at a certain time. This keeps the tension up as you advance through the levels. There is also a great enemy variety. You fight gangsters, zombies, soldiers, mob bosses, masochists in pig masks and quite a few others. The enemies all have different attack styles as well. This is a game that you have to learn. It isn’t easy and that makes all the more amazing. The final boss is another great example of this. The incarnation of Nekro is the punk rock skeleton who has three phases. One phase is fighting copies of yourself and a closing in wall that you throw syringes at, phase two are living syringes and muscle dropping down and the final phase is the boss itself in 2 forms. It is hard and so very rewarding.

The World and Story – The game takes place just before the Russian Revolution. You are Four Roma (Sergei, Ivan, Natasha and Boris) who are betrayed by your friend Mikhail and given to the government to be experimented on. You survive but become addicted to Nekro in the process. From here you are seeking revenge against your former friend and end up helping another friend as the revolution begins. It is a dark, violent and twisted world as you are the lowest rung in society and everyone wants you dead. You end up in some fascinating environments too on your quest for revenge. You fight in a sex club where you fight people in pig masks and battle against a giant butcher at the end, you fight on a train, against military officers and police and finally against a living embodiment of the drug itself. It is in the final fight where my wife and our friend ended up getting the bad ending. If you use the drug to defeat the final boss than you die of an overdose and are remembered by the revolution. If you succeed without using the drug than a statue is made to honor you in how you helped the revolution. We got the bad ending, which I honestly thought was more realistic to the world the story takes places in and was the better story.

As you can tell, I loved this game. This is a Beat ‘Em Up better than “X-Men” or the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” games. I enjoyed both of those games but this one built on the core fun base game they had. The fact that the story has a point gives even more power to it. It is a tragedy about addiction as well as just how costly revolutions are on the people, while also recognizing the importance of fighting corruption. Our protagonists are the lowest within society and them grabbing their own agency lends power to the narrative as they seek revenge against those who wronged them. This was a really fun game and I definitely plan to check out more games from this studio.

Final Score: 10 / 10 This is the perfect Beat ‘Em Up.

 

Halo Wars 2: Awakening the Nightmare – The Ongoing War

   “Halo Wars 2” is one of my favorite games. I have always had a soft spot for RTS (Real-time Strategy) games and this one is one of the best. Besides “Starcraft 2” it is the one I always come back to, especially if it means playing with friends. I’m a huge fan of the Halo Games (1-3, Reach and the first “Halo Wars”) and this game delivers on that lore you get in the Halo Universe. Before I get into spoilers, if you are a fan of RTS games you will probably love this one. The balance is really good between the two factions, the campaign variety is a lot of fun and the story is solidly good. It has also has quite a few fun multiplayer options that give it great replay value. I’ll be reviewing the game up to all that has been released so far (The initial game was released on February 21, 2017), which is currently up to the DLC “Rise of the Nightmare.” I’ll be giving individual scores to campaigns (Base Game, Operation: Spearkbreaker and Awakening of the Nightmare) before my overall assessment of the game itself.

The game was created by 343 Industries and Creative Assembly and produced by Microsoft Game Studios.

This is a game that picks up where “Halo Wars 1” left off following the crew of The Spirit of Fire after they crossed through the portal at the end of the second game. The story follows them as they face off against a new threat for Ex-Covenant Soldiers known as “The Banished.” They are lead by Atriox, a powerful Brute leader who is seeking to take control of The Ark, something so powerful that with control, they would easily capture the Galaxy.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – I am a huge fan of this Universe. I’ve never been the biggest fan of humanity since we don’t really see a diversity of opinion in the games and it is more of a Space Marine defending everything, which is a fun survival game to play, but isn’t compelling as Space Politics. The Universe has so much Space Politics in the Aliens of the Covenant and this game leans in on all of that. We get more lore for the UNSC with the crew of The Spirit of Fire being followed and we get a whole new faction in “The Banished.” Each faction has new heroes we meet and it is great to see them all interact. This Universe clearly isn’t done yet, as you’ll see from the campaign, things are left pretty open so I’m curious to see if “The Banished” are going to be incorporated into “Halo 6.” I love their heroes so it would be cool to see them become a permanent part of the Halo Universe beyond “Halo Wars 2.”

Gameplay and Multiplayer – Multiplayer is a lot of fun. As part of there are weekly and daily missions where you unlock playing cards you can use in Firefight and other multiplayer modes, there is standard multi-player as well and in all of them you have the many Commanders with some being Halo Wars 2 originals like YapYap, Atriox and Isabel and some who are carryover characters from the first Halo Wars like the Arbiter you fight in “Halo Wars 1.” Within standard gameplay you have hero powers you unlock as you progress in the game, like the first “Halo Wars.” Each commander has unique special units and powers as well, which leads to a greater variety of choices and replayability. When you are in a game and you and your friend are co-oping against a great opponent there are some amazing moments of synergy that can be created.

File:HW2 Campaign Loadscreen.jpg

Halo Wars 2 Main Campaign – The main campaign is fun. It is here we meet Atriox and his “Banished” as well as the new A.I. Isabel, who was with other human’s on the arc before Atriox’s arrival. The story follow Captain Cutter working with Isabel and the Spartans on the ground as they work to push back Atriox’s forces and prevent them from activating a Halo Ring. Captain Cutter, Anders and the UNSC are successful but the final shot is of Atriox watching a map of the Ark, showing us how clearly his forces still own it, even after all the setbacks he’s faced since the UNSC arrival. There is great mission variety and you learn a lot about “The Banished” pretty quick and how they were a Covenant Suicide Squad until Atriox rebelled and proceeded to conquer and recruit through the galaxy.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10. Really good for developing the lore but doesn’t feel like a whole story. We have some great arcs like Isabel’s completed, and the gameplay is fun. But besides that it is mostly Atriox’s forces being slowly broken down and his big plan being prevented.

File:HW2 OperationSpearbreaker Banner.png

Operation: Spearbreaker – This DLC follows a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers called Sunray 1-1, as they uncover and stop the plot of a “Banished” Hunter leader named Colony. These missions were easier than the hardest in the base campaign and also not as fun. You are primarily investigating with your troops until you uncover the Forerunner Ship that Colony is trying to activate, than it becomes all out war and becomes more enjoyable as Colony sends all of it’s forces at you. This one is fun but easily the weakest of all the content. I couldn’t tell you the personality of anyone in Sunray and the only interesting character is Colony, but we don’t really get to know it, beyond it being a very smart and clever Hunter.

Final Score: 7 / 10 Solidly enjoyable, but not replayable.

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Awakening the Nightmare – I was a fan of the “Covenant” in Halo Franchise, at least in regards to being a fan of the aliens who made up the Covenant. I was Team Arbiter the moment he was playable in “Halo 2” and “Halo 3” and I’ve wanted to play as the alien factions in Halo Universe for as long I’ve played “Halo” which for me dates all the way back to High School. In “Halo Wars 1” the “Covenant” don’t have a campaign and sadly for much of “Halo Wars 2” they didn’t either, until “Awakening the Nightmare.” For me this was something I’d been waiting for a long time and I was not disappointed. This was challenging gameplay and a really fun story as you have two Brute Brothers (Pavium and Voridus). They are investigating remains of the battle from “Installation 00” from the ending of the “Human-Covenant War” for technology. Voridus being stupid awakens the Flood in his investigation of the dead Covenant ship High Charity after he shuts down the Forerunner Defenses. From here he and his brother Voridus must reactivate the Sentinels and stop the Flood and a Proto-Gravemind from taking over the Ark. Pavium is the smart one who had warned him the first place and holds the line as they end up facing off against The Flood together before a final victory. It is an awesome fight and Pavium is one one of my favorite commanders in multiplayer and Halo Lore. I really hope we see these two brothers again as “The Banished” really need a win against the UNSC, and this mission showed that even against overwhelming odds they are Atriox’s survivors and warriors for a reason.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great and finally a “Banished” campaign.

Okay:

Story Consequences – We have had 2 DLCs released as well as the base game but it feels like nothing has happened. Atroix’s forces have continued to lose ground and the UNSC continues to become more powerful but there hasn’t been any real major change. I want to see where this story goes and have characters change in a way that either builds on the Universe further (more than the existence of “The Banished” already does) and leads to some sort of ending. I’m good with that being a peace treaty or something that has Atriox winning for once, but it feels like we have been given so much game but things haven’t changed very much at all beyond status quo of “The Banished” losing ground. What happened to Anders and “The Halo?” Do the Flood exist elsewhere in the Galaxy as a faction? (I’d love them to be playable, even if it was only multiplayer, there should be enough game assets to do so). I put this as okay because I still enjoyed my time with the characters and the campaigns are fun. I’m still holding out for a major “Banished” win and them becoming a major part of the Halo Games moving forward. This story has the potential to not be a repeat of “Halo Wars 1” and not repeating “Halo 1-3.”

The Cons:

Microsoft Issues – To buy the full game it is expensive. The DLC, even when sold discounted isn’t cheap. Some Commanders on their own are nearly $10 and each new DLC, even if it includes commanders usually starts at $20. Given how expensive the base game was for so long that always rubbed me the wrong way. I also wasn’t a fan with how I continue to have issues with connecting online because of the Microsoft Server. It makes me miss the days of old Battle.net and games where you didn’t have to log onto a 3rd Party Account to play a game. Whenever you have to log on you are beholden the problems of whatever is hosting you be it Steam or Microsoft. So yeah the price and Microsoft bugs are major cons that keep the game from being great.

“Halo Wars 2” is one of my favorite games and if you love the Halo Universe, you will probably love it too. I play it on PC and I think that is the way any RTS should be played. Controllers were not made for playing RTS games and I have no idea how anyone does it. I can’t wait to see where Microsoft takes this game and Universe. There is still so much potential there and so much more story to explore. This is a really good game and I continue to play multiplayer with my friends as this wonderful game continues to inspire my passion for the rich lore of the Halo Universe. In the end the pros outway the cons for me and I expect I’ll probably always be coming back to this game. If they release another expansion for this game and give us more “Banished” content, you can expect to see that review on the blog. Their existence got me back into this amazing universe and I’m looking forward to all the stories that can be told.

 

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos – Fun RTS Gameplay and Solid Fantasy Redemption Story

   “Warcraft III” and the original “Starcraft,” are the games that got me into RTS games, along with “Age of Empires II” and “Rise of Nations.” Does “Reign of Chaos” hold up? I would say yes, there are some things Blizzard did that took away from the strategy a little bit (adding hero units which turned multiplayer into a rush game). I really enjoyed this, for someone who grew on Tolkien no one had subverted the “Orcs are bad.” trope until “Warcraft III.”

In regards to how I review this first game of 2 (I plan to review “The Frozen Throne” after I beat it again), it holds up and I’ll give a brief analysis on gameplay (pros and cons) and how the story was. The story in the end will be my overall judge for any game where the gameplay is at least enjoyable. Like my films I enjoy my games being compelling and having a narrative that pulls me in.

For giving recognition where it is due, Chris Metzen wrote the story (which explains why he is the head of storytelling on WOW for best and for worse) directed by Frank Fierce jr. and produced by Chris Sigaty.

The story picks up after Warcraft 2 (all the games so Draenor is destroyed and the Horde Orcs are defeated and in internment camps) and begins with Thrall freeing the rest of his people Lordaeron on promptings from a mysterious prophet. From here we trace the rise of the Scourge, the return of the demons of the Burning Legions and the introduction of the Night Elves.

SPOILERS ahead (old game so may not mean as much).

The Pros: The Gameplay – As stated above, the gameplay is too rushish in multiplayer but the Hero concept payed off. I wouldn’t being loving “Heroes of the Storm” if not for this game. So I take the pros over the cons and in the end it is pro. Each hero has unique ability, and depending on your playstyle (I tend to go for auras over abilities) helps in the campaign, custom and multiplayer games. In the end the campaign was fun, which is a win for me. I enjoyed playing this game again after not playing it since High School, and can’t wait to replay the expansion.

The Alliance – We only really get to see the Fall of Lordaeron in this and the rest of the Alliance is purposely left out. I get this as in if the game fails, we get the fall of the Alliance from past “Warcraft” games, but if it succeeds….we get “World of Warcraft” which is still going with the most recent game being “Legion.” The fall is told really well, with Arthas killing people in “The Purge of Stratholme” to save them from being enslaved, and going mad after. It is compelling and in the end the Scourge wins ending with Arthas turning on his troops, sacraficing his friend Magni and killing his father the King, leading into the next campaign. Arthas is the drive and seeing his fall is how Anakin in in the Star Wars Prequels should have been done.

The Scourge – The Scourge Campaign involves Arthas destroying his own nation after the killing of his father after the end of the Human Campaign. It is really good. You start out weak, resurrecting the Necromancer Kel’Thuzad who you killed during Arthas’s fall to empower the Scourge and bring in the Burning Legion who are behind it all and the big threat from all past Warcraft games. It is really good and you get to see how Arthas without a soul is like. He is funny and also evil as hell. He kills his mentor Uther, destroys the Kirin Tor (who is the faction of his complicated relationship – Jana) and in the end feels powerless until he returns later in the last campaign. He feels like a pawn but empowered in his malice and it is Kel’Thuzad who hits at the plans to come as Ner’zhul predicted the fall and conquest and his freedom and Scourge sovereignty out of it.

The Horde – The Horde is complicated, back in Middle School they were my favorite faction, and I still love playing compicated orcs, nowadays though. Grom, who “redeems” the orcs only fights. Thrall who is the Warchief is constantly keeping him in check and even though Grom kills the big bad (after he kills a good demigod) doesn’t redeem him in my eyes. This campaign was fun, but Grom pissed me off. Thrall was good but he never apologizes to Jana (who is Arthas’s complicated and brings the survivors of Lordaeron to Kalimdor) and only sees Grom as hero. Th orcs deserved better and World of Warcraft really hasn’t redeemed them yet. They are still conquerors and not fully refugees and that is a toxic narrative. I’m a fan of the orcs and this time around could not embrace them. They don’t see what they do as wrong and only live to fight, which even if they aren’t the evil of Tolkien orcs doesn’t put them on par with the Night Elves and Humans. They deserved better in this game, though still putting as a pro. This was the only time I’ve played orcs in a somewhat redeeming light and I want more of that. They are a compelling species and I love their aesthetic.

The Night Elves – The Night Elves story is short but awesome. You have the warrior women who protect the forests and bring in the Druids when things to get apocalyptic. Tyrande, the Priestess of the Moon is a fanatic but you get her perspective given she hasn’t had Outsiders in 10,000 years and in the end she appreciates the orcs and humans who defend Mount Hyjal and the World Tree from the big bad Archimonde who wants to consume Azeroth. Furion is standard wise old guy but fighting with the Druids of the Claw was fun, Illidan is the Boba Fett in this game where he was trapped and fights for himself because all have wronged him and stars in 1 mission (but has an awesome aesthetic). I enjoyed this campaign and wanted at least 1 more with Illidan to develop him further, though I know the expansion to this game does that really well. This is where the complicated characters are. Jana is savior and love interest and doesn’t get beyond that and the Kirin Tor and King are (you know us from Warcraft II lore if you read the books) which coming back to the game wasn’t enough. The Night Elves campaign is short but it is a rich campaign.

The Fall of Arthas – The most compelling story in this game is that of Arthas. He turns on the past allies of the High Elves and kills their general Sylvanas (who I want to say now is amazing come “The Frozen Throne” given what goes down this game). He kills his further, turns on his allies. Consumed by revenge he forsakes everything for the power to achieve his revenge. He is the perfect Anakin and I get why “Wrath of the Lich King” is so memorable even though I haven’t played and avoid MMORPGS.

The Introduction of Illidan – Illidan’s introduction is great. He isn’t to be trusted but he kills the big bads while serving himself. He is the perfect anti-hero in Warcraft. He has no destiny or prophecy at this point…he is a hero who messed up and was wronged acting out. This makes his mission fun and why I was drawn to him after so many years replaying. Can’t wait see his story unfold again in “The Frozen Throne.”

Defeating the Burning Legion – This is a win that pays off. We see them come during the Scourge Campaign and even though Thrall and Grom defeat the general Mannaroth, we saw Archimonde decimate a kingdom in the Scourge cinematic. The threat is always real, especially with most Night Elf missions being a race against time, and this is them with allies and them having defeated the Burning Legion in the past. The payoff is amazing and holding Archimonde back to the second with Tyrande and Furion to the second was such a rewarding playthrough. For me every Night Elf mission mattered, both from challenge and investment in the characters.

Okay: More Exploration / Missions Could Have Made Perfect – Grom should have been shown being noble and not just a blood lust fighter to make his redemption mean something and not just him escaping his addiction to battle, Jaina deserved a mission escaping from the Scourge and her former lover Arthas and to give her more agency and the Night Elves needed a mission to work with the Alliance and Horde…a custscene wasn’t enough given Grom killed one of their Gods. This took away from making the game perfect.

Grom’s “Redemption” -This guy only lives for fighting. He has a great look, but he needed more. We never saw him as loving any more than war, he cared about Thrall and felt bad but each time that mattered he went back to fighting. There is no reason for Thrall to trust him or for the Horde to be forgiven beyond “The End of the World” in the Night Elf campaign. He deserved better given that the character came back in “Warlords of Draenor” and his son was Warchief of the Horde…and like his dad ruined it. I am a fan of the Horde, I like orcs as not simply bad guys…but Warcraft’s redemption doesn’t fully work. Chris Metzen was the writer and the Horde deserved better if they were going to be redeemed. I want good orcs, but you won’t get them from Grom killing Mannaroth. The flaws run to deep if Grom wants to fight every mission, him killing his species enslaver (Mannaroth), doesn’t justify him willing to kill anyone for not being an orc through the campaign. Looks cool, but the guy is deplorable.

“Reign fo Chaos” is a flawed and amazing game that is well worth your time if you enjoy RTS games. I can’t wait to replay “The Frozen Throne” given how fun Arthas and Illidan are to play as heroes and I love the “Forsaken” campaign, which was actually a great set-up for the Forsaken joining the Horde in WoW and further Sylvanas development. This game is self contained, it is set-up to be self contained if it fails given the big bads are beaten and we have a world that no longer needs “Guardians.” For this reason I rate the game highly. There is some great character development, even if I wanted more for the orcs and night elves. If you like fantasy games or rts’s check this game out. It has been out for years, but is well worth your time.

Final Score: 9.3  / 10. A solidly great fantasy RTS game.

Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void – Gameplay Over Story

 “Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void” is the perfect point of gameplay over story, which is a shame because this is a story that is trying to do a lot. The game it is most similar too is probably “Mass Effect 3” with Moebius Corp as Cerberus and Hybrids and Void entities as Reapers with an ending that isn’t really set up all that well and putting drama and rule of cool over character choices that actually make sense. The gameplay is top notch, like “Mass Effect 3” too. The one thing that puts it above “Mass Effect 3” for me though is that the character choices do make some level of sense in the end (the exception being the Epilogue) and that is where Blizzard showed themselves to be better storytellers than EA/Bioware in this instance. I’ll get into what I mean deeper into the review.

The story picks up where we left off with Amon coming into the Universe. We first follow Zeratul who witnesses his rebirth and escapes to warn Executor Artanis who is about to begin the retaking of Aiur with the Golden Fleet. Things soon go awry when Amon takes control of the Khala forcing Artanis on the run as he must unite different Protoss factions against Amon’s forces and the Golden Fleet, Amon now controls.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Universe – I love the universe of “Starcraft” and the main campaign does such an amazing job exploring it and giving so many more layers to the Protoss as a people. We meet more factions, see just how powerful Amon is and how insidious his influence is as well as see how difficult it is for a people to change as this is the game that at the core is about the Protoss changing as a species as the only way to defeat Amon is to make an Alliance between the remaining protoss factions and defeat Amon’s armies as well as making sure he never enters into the physical realm from void.

The Transformation of the Protoss – The main arc of this game storywise is the Transformation of the Protoss. In this we see how the challenges to the Caste System and the Khala which began in the first game with the Dark Templar rejoining their Aiur breathren against the Zerg, and continues even further with a Preserver who advises Artanis and reacts negativly to all the Alliances he forms with the Nerazim (Protoss Sith Lords basically, Purifiers – AI Protoss and the Dark Templar). He constantly challenges her assumptions and shows it was the old ways that lead to the Overmind defeating them in the first place and that her holding onto the Khala is causing Amon to possess and destroy her. It is a great arc and we see them come together as one in the final fight against Amon before he can gain a body.

The Hero’s Journey of Artanis – The main journey is that of Artanis as he steps up to the mantel of leadership and must face his insecurities and guilt, as when Amon possess him he kills Zeratul before Zeratul can free him, and this is after Zeratul warned him that Aiur had already fallen to Amon and that he was going into a trap. He carries this forward and does everything can can to broker peace among the Protoss factions and within himself and new allies challenge him to become a better leader and introduce him to new perspectives that he integrates through the course of the story.

John De Lancie’s Alarak – Alarak is part of Tal’darim, the enemy Protoss introduced in “Wings of Liberty” who worship Amon and are apocalyptic in their aims. They are essentially Protoss Sith as their philosophy is based on dominance and strength and they care for nothing but the individual. Alarak is a shining example of this as he only joins with Artanis when he realizes that Amon will destroy them when his intentions are revealed so he goes to take control of the Tal’darim and bring the war to Amon. He is a hilarious character who has so much sass. Anyone he talks to, he shuts down and in the end he goes his own way as well, refusing to rebuild on Aiur and rejoin his people. He’s a punk who is powerful and fun and really shows just how diverse the Protoss are in mindset.

The Protoss Factions – There are the Purifiers who are A.I. who gained sentience and rebelled and must trust their organic counterparts again (and one hold Fenix’s memories), the Dark Templar lead by Voruzan (who really should have gotten more development in this game), the Preserver of the Spear of Adun who holds onto the old ways and history, a Phase-Smith who becomes a hero and Templar rising in his caste and Alarak, the sassy Tal’darim who is in an Alliance of convenience with our heroes. I loved clicking them and getting their perspectives in the different scenes. Each showed just how layered and complex the Protoss are a species.

Unit Choices in Battle – As you recruit different factions you can choose what units you can bring into battle. Tal’darim have damage based unit types, Aiur Protoss are about shields, Purifiers are strong units and the Dark Templar are the infiltrators. Depending on the mission different units will serve you better. This was a lot of fun and gave a different dynamic to how to go about completing missions.

Mission Variety – This game has the best mission variety out of all the different Starcraft IIs. Whether it was defending resources and moving to different gather points on a moving metal disk, stopping a base from crashing into the Dominion homeworld and having to repair and defend it, a countdown to prevent Amon from getting his body and countless others. All of them were a lot of fun and felt epic in scale.

Co-op Missions – Co-op campaigns are what kept me coming back after finishing the main campaign. In Co-op games you choose a hero and level them up as you face off against Amon’s forces. Kerrigan was the first I leveled up fully as you use her abilities that strengthen her and the unit composition of her army. Since release there have been many more released with my favorite new character being Dehaka who leads a pack of Primal Zerg. The fact that each commander is different keeps the game interesting since I haven’t really done multiplayer. I seriously recommend Co-op. It is the best example of how great the gameplay got in “Legacy of the Void.”

The Cons: Rule of Cool – One of the annoying things about this game was how often it went to “Rule of Cool,” like “Mass Effect 3” did on countless occasions when ever Cerberus was involved. The best example of this are the times that Artanis goes in alone. He is leading his entire species and he refuses to let anyone come with him. I get the Protoss are honor bound but the entire Universe is at stake. This is how the Rule of Cool can become the Rule of Stupid. To create a cool looking fight characters will do stupid things to bring about impossible battles and due to plot armor will win. I hate that type of garbage storytelling and a few of the cutscenes were just that.

The Epilogue – The epilogue is a lot of fun to play, you get to play with the Protoss, Terran and Zerg armies. First with the Protoss as you fight Narud in the Void, second the Terran as you defend Kerrigan turning into a Xel’Naga and finally as the the Zerg and Kerrigan where you break down Amon’s defenses so that Kerrigan can kill him. It is gameplay over story as there is one missing Xel’Naga who was trapped for some reason and turns Kerrigan into a Xel’Naga / God. It is so silly. The only things I liked about it was the combat and the fact that Kerrigan saw it as a way to atone for her sins as the Queen of Blades. This is the only way it worked, and I did like the afterword that Zagara as the Overqueen leading the new Swarm. Still was mostly stupid, the fight against Amon should have been the main mission given how dangerous he is. Making it an epilogue made the story that they set up in Wings of Liberty feel rushed and poorly thought out.

“Legacy of the Void,” for all of the flaws it has is well worth your time. Gameplaywise it is the best of the Trilogy and storywise has the main flaws that littered the entire Trilogy with rushed setups and failure to have payoffs. They did kill off Zeratul which for me puts it above “Wings of Liberty” in story though. This story did take risks, and the overall theme of uniting the Protoss in the main campaign was fantastic. In the end I’d rate it slightly below “Heart of the Swarm” but above “Wings of Liberty.” The Epilogue hurts the final score the most as does Rule of Cool but it is still a game that I can’t help but recommend. I haven’t played the Nova DLC but if I do that will be a future review. For now, Blizzard had a good end to their series, even if it failed to reach greatness in the final chapter/Epilogue.

Final Score: 9.3 / 10

Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm – An Evolution of Gameplay and Story

      “Heart of the Swarm” improves off “Wings of Liberty” in most places where it counts. The story has more going on, the characters are more interesting and the side missions are really enjoyable as well as the hero leveling system that the game gives in how Kerrigan grows through the game. You are given choices that matter and affect gameplay, which is more than “Wings of Liberty” was ever able to do. I’ll get into more of what I mean later in the review, but this is a game that improves upon the original in almost every way.

The downsides are really in how there is too much emphasis on Emperor Mengsk as the villain and not enough on the threat of the Xel’Naga, which sadly hurts the overall arc of the Trilogy.

The story picks up where “Wings of Liberty” left off with a de-infested Kerrigan with Raynor’s Raiders and Valerian Mengsk. When Dominion forces attack she is separated from them all and when she believes Raynor to be killed goes on a revenge mission against Mengsk as she takes control of the Swarm and grows once more into her role as the Queen of Blades.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Universe – I love the Starcraft Universe and in this game we get so much more of it. From Narud’s experiments and the infested resurrected Stukov and the Hybrids from the last game, from the Primal Zerg and the Zerg who witnessed the Xel’Naga come but only cared about becoming stronger and better and did not care for the greater war in the Universe as Amon created them on the Primal Zerg world…from the power of the Dominion and recruitment of the Brood Mothers as Kerrigan re-establishes herself as the Queen of Blades. I love this Universe and this game does nothing but enrich it. We also get to play as Raynor’s Raiders taking on a Mercenary army with their Battlecruiser in order to find out where Raynor is trapped and so that he can rescued. The world is so wonderfully dark and complicated.

Evolution Missions – On the way of taking control of the Swarm once more Abathur, Kerrigan’s Evolution Master gives missions where you can shape Zerg into different strains. Each choice is permanent but their are pros and cons to each. You can have faster and weaker units that can fly, greater number of units or stronger individual units with greater regeneration depending on the choice you make…and on those missions you take out Dominion or Feral Zerg forces. They are so much fun.

The Nature of the Swarm – The Swarm is change and evolution. This is one reason Kerrigan works so well as the leader because she is constant change and adaptation and now being free of the Overmind she no longer as Amon’s influence on her (that she originally got through the original purpose of the Zerg and the Overmind). It is powerful seeing her take charge of the swarm and see how their primary drive to live, change, evolve and grow. The Zerg are not static and this game really shows how easy it is for the Swarm to grow and become one of the strongest powers in the Universe. It is in their nature and when they have direction from the Queen of Blades the Overmind or one who knows them, they are unstoppable.

Kerrigan and her Team – Kerrigan has my favorite Team out of the 3 games. I like how Abathur is a selfish being that only sees the point in making things more efficent regardless of cost (so weird, awful and alien) how Zagara only values strength and bettering the Swarm and serving Kerrigan how Stukov has no one so only wants acceptance and the Swarm is the only acceptance he has now that he is dead to humanity and Dehaka and his obsession with essence and his drive to survive and change through anything.

Leveling Kerrigan and Shaping the Swarm – The gameplay is fun and part of the reason it is so much fun is you power up Kerrigan and her abilities and these abilities influence her as hero unit and also your base and how quickly you can build or what you start. She is a powerhouse and the right upgrades make her an unstoppable force on her own or one who can sustain the Swarm and have a large group. The Swarm is also shaped from the Evolution Missions stated above too.

Okay: The Power of Emperor Mengsk – I’m putting Emperor Mengsk’s power and the Dominon as okay and not a pro for two reasons. The first is that he should have been weaker after Valerian took half his fleet and second Kerrigan destroyed his forces on more than one occasion. This game happens just after he got his butt kicked last game. The reason I don’t put him as a con is he did have Narud and via Narud Amon backing him so he was powerful that way and there was a good amount of time between “Brood War” and “Wings of Liberty.” For these reason I won’t put him as a con.

Not Enough Xel’Naga Exploration – We get a glimpse of the nature of the Xel’Naga on Zerus (the Zerg homeworld) and when Narud’s true form a changeling is revealed and what dialogue he gives us. Otherwise they are an abstract threat even though we the prophecy of Kerrigan’s role going on and really needed more in the lead up to whatever her future is.

The Narud and Amon Payoff – Narud is the mini-boss before Arcturus Mengsk and it is only over the course of 3 missions. He really should have been a bigger deal. Mengsk makes more sense narratively but for the overall game Narud has been the greatest threat of them all. He is the reason the UED no longer exists as a threat, he is the reason the Protoss continued to fall apart and his master Amon is the reason the Zerg almost destroyed everything fulfilling their role in the big picture. With better writing, he really should have been the end boss or played a much bigger part in the story. He’d been around for so long why did he suddenly stop manipulating the Zerg when he clearly still had control of some Protoss forces, Moebius and the elements of the Dominion. Narud and the Xel’Naga deserved better and I think Blizzard didn’t know what to do with them after setting them up so well in “Brood War” and the original “Starcraft.”

The Cons: Raynor and Revenge as Primary Motivation – I think the writers meant it to mirror Raynor’s love for Kerrigan as his motivation in “Wings of Liberty” but it sucked that Kerrigan was turned into that as well. I never got those vibes from her in any of the original games and making her The Bride from “Kill Bill” was fine but her best character moments are when we see her accepting her role as the Queen of Blades and finding motivation beyond revenge as she cares for and shapes the Swarm. That was where she was amazing as we already got her revenge story back in “Brood War” and it was handled so much better.

I really enjoyed “Heart of the Swarm.” This is a game for all the flaws it has (largely based in story with Emperor Mengsk being this unstoppable force who still continues to lose through 2 games) and the lack of focus on Narud, Amon and the Xel’Naga makes the upcoming threat feel only so strong. It also sets up Kerrigan as the Chosen One which is stupid storytelling in general, even though I like that Kerrigan’s flaws are all her own. she is ruthless and driven and a little bit of a sociopath but it makes her compelling because it is her mind that shapes the Swarm and we see how she makes the Zerg Swarm less of an all consuming force and more a precision weapon focused on perfection and change. For these reasons I would rate it higher than “Wings of Liberty.” There is better payoff storywise, better gameplay and the campaign missions are a lot of fun and honestly, my favorite heroes are the Heroes from the Swarm and how wonderfully alien they all are. This is another one of my favorite games.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty – A Bit of Revolution and about Time

  “Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty” was a game I’d been waiting for, for a long time. It was the original “Starcraft” series that got me into RTS games and also was a huge influence on my love of science fiction stories. I still remember playing through the game for the first time at my friend’s place in college on his computer as I saw just how awesome the campaign was, I’d been waiting for this game for a long time. Years later after a second playthrough, I still really enjoy this game, but the flaws are much more apparent as well as what it misses that “Brood War” and the original “Starcraft” brought to story. I’ll do an overall comparison after reviewing all the games of “Starcraft II.”

The story picks up with war beginning again as Raynor’s Raiders seek to overthrow Mengsk and stop Kerrigan’s Swarm. This involves putting news of Mengsk’s betrayal out to the world while taking on Zerg and Dominion forces and seeking Xel’Naga artifacts for the Mobius Foundation as they may be the key to taking out Kerrigan’s Swarm.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Gameplay – The gameplay is a lot of fun. There is a great variety of strategy to each of the campaigns and how you use your hero units and troops. You can outlast and go all out with a large fully upgraded force, or push forward with any level of balanced forces. It’s extremely enjoyable and there is a reason that even after years of not playing this game I couldn’t put it down once I started playing it again.

Mission Variety – There is a great amount of mission variety, from a prison breakout where you defend a giant Odin piloted by Jim’s friend Tychus, a choice to do a ground based hero mission on Char or Air Assault against Kerrigan’s Swarm and some racing against the clock where you save civilians before Kerrigan destroys you. You also have a huge Prophecy side quest with Zeratul discovering Kerrigan’s role and the what the oncoming destruction will be and how to stop it. These are small hero driven missions.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is wonderful and captures the old west feel of the Terran as well as the tension of war, the threat of the Swarm of the mystery of the Protoss. It has a lot of salutes to the original soundtrack while still remaining to be it’s own thing.

The Universe – The Universe is the same wonderful one from past games except that it gives us more characters and reestablishes there has been some stability after the “Brood War” as the Dominion is now one of the core powers once more and the Swarm is a large threat while the Protoss as a power are scattered. I love this Universe and it was wonderful to jump into it agai as Jim Raynor, even if some of the characters really annoyed me and felt cheap compared to the characters of games past. You get flavors of the Universe in news reports from the Dominion Channel and witness one corrupt news anchor fall apart as another with integrity rises, mirroring Jim Raynor’s own journey through the campaign.

The Complex Rogues – The complex rogues are the best part of this game…whether it is Zeratul as the Dark Wizard seeking to keep back the end, even if it means saving Kerrigan, the woman has meant nothing but destruction for his people, Tychus as the Merc who believes in Jim but also wants to be free so will kill Kerrigan if given the chance and of course Gabriel Tosh, the rogue spectre seeking to overthrow Mengsk who also helps you through Zeratul’s visions. These are easily the best characters in the game with Jim as the rogue trying to do the right thing in the difficult situations he is put in. Hell Valerian Mengsk (Emperor Mengsk’s son) is even complex in his own way as he wants to find a way to fix infestation and in doing so be a better savior to his humanity than his father ever was. These characters drove the story and made me click them for conversations when you are the Battle Cruiser “Hyperion.”

Okay: Prophecy and Destiny – I don’t really like the idea of prophecy and destiny as all powerful beings like the Xel’Naga would have been destroyed if they could have seen the future. It also ends up giving plot armor to all of Kerrigan’s actions in “Brood War” and this game does not deal with the monster she currently is, instead we get mopey lovesick Raynor, which really hurt the storytelling as he gets a love interest out of it and it hurts Kerrigan’s agency in her actions.

The Cons: The One-Dimensional Characters – There are a few of these, with the worst offenders being the nerd stereotype Egon and the love interest scientist Ariel Hanson. They only function as plot devices to tell Raynor things and I never saw them as complete characters. Matt Horner is also this to some degree as he is the noble revolutionary, and we never get why. This was the disadvantage that comes with a large cast and so many characters really should have been developed that weren’t. This is the weakest of the the “Starcraft II” games because of this.

“Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty” and is a great game I’d recommend. The gameplay and mission variety are absolutely wonderful and the complex rogues are a lot of fun to follow, even though I hate how prophecy turns some of them into some a certain level of plot device. If you haven’t played this game already and are a fan of RTS games, I highly recommend it. As a fan of the Starcraft Franchise, they would have had to really mess this up for me to hate it, but even as someone who was away from the game for years it is still a solidly great game worth time. It took long enough to make and if you have, it’s about damn time to play.

Final Score: 9 / 10 Solidly great.